An Inside Look at Bob Dylan's 'Dharma & Greg' Cameo

1999-10-12, 20th Century Fox Lot, Los Angeles, CA

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On today’s date in 1999, Bob Dylan made one of the most surprising appearances of his entire career, popping up unannounced on ‘90s sitcom Dharma & Greg.

Though on a certain level there’s probably no good answer to the obvious question - why? - Dylan did have a connection on the show. One of the show’s writers, Eddie Gorodetsky, was friendly with Dylan (he would go on to produce Theme Time Radio Hour). The show made the ask, Bob’s manager asked for tapes of a couple episodes, and a month later he agreed.

The clip of Dylan’s appearance is below. I watched the entire episode - not something I’d necessarily recommend - to put it in context. Dylan’s appearance comes right at the end. It has practically nothing to do with the episode’s central plot: Dharma (played by Jenna Elfman) joins a teenage boy’s rock band until one of their moms kicks her out. The mom (played by Jane Lynch) is treated like a buzzkill, but, honestly, I’m on her side. Why are you trying to hang out with a bunch of kids half your age, Dharma? Weird.

Anyway, the plot wraps up with three minutes left to go. Then, out of nowhere, Dharma tells Greg, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got another audition.” Cue this final scene:

Yep, that’s it. Bob gets in a couple jokes - totally unable to keep a straight face - but much of his appearance is simply the band jamming. It feels especially odd in context; 20 minutes of snappy sitcom editing followed by a few minutes of musical ambling. But since it is a live musical performance, it qualifies for this newsletter.

I wanted to learn more about what that day was like, so I spoke with one of the band members, John Fields. He plays organ, having never met Bob before. Here’s John in between Bob and T-Bone Burnett:

And here is John’s account of his day with Dylan and Dharma, edited for clarity:

This was, if I remember correctly, July of '99. Although I lived in Minneapolis, I was producing a record for a band called Evan and Jaron at The Village studio that summer. This was early in my career; no one had heard of me in L.A. The band fought for me to be involved. Columbia kept saying, "We need a figurehead, someone who can help with cred on the record." They met with a couple of people and they liked T-Bone Burnett.

What was great about having T-Bone involved was his Rolodex was thick. He'd say, "Hey, why don't you get Jim Keltner over to play drums for a couple of days?" "Bring in Marc Ribot for a couple of days and have him play on whatever songs." John Medeski came in and played. I had never really worked that way before. I was so budget-conscious coming from the Minneapolis indie music scene. You don't really bring in session players just to fool around and see what happens. It was a real luxury for me as a producer.

Anyway, that had been going on for a month or so. T-Bone would come in at the end of the night and I'd play him what we were working on. One day he comes in and he says to me, "Hey, I've got a pick-up gig and I wonder if you want to play organ?" I said, "Sure, no problem." I'm thinking that it was one of his buddies down in Santa Monica. I had no idea who, and he didn't tell me. He just said, "It's Friday and I'll tell you more when we know more." I didn't even think about it much.

T-Bone [finally] said, "Oh, the gig is over at the Fox Lot. It's with Bob Dylan. I put together a little group to jam. It's this show ‘Dharma & Greg.’ We don't know what it's really going to be, but just show up at five o'clock.” I was thinking it was something a lot smaller time, let alone a televised gig with no rehearsal. I'd never even been on a national TV show before.

It's not that I have a history with Bob; it's just that everyone does if you're from Minneapolis. I'm a Jewish kid, and my mother was from St. Paul. She went to camp with Bob at Herzl. His mother and my grandmother were best friends in the '80s at this assisted living apartment complex in St. Paul. I'm sure I had met his mom back then. It was just a little bit of extra electricity when I met him. The last thing I'm going to say is, "Do you remember my mom from camp?"

When we got there, there was a bunch of gear set up. It was Tony Gilkyson from X, Joe Henry played acoustic, I played organ, T-Bone played bass, Bob played guitar. I think it was T-Bone's guitar that he was playing. And then Jenna Elfman, who wasn't really a drummer. She'd been taking drum lessons for the last several months. She had one beat she knew; you can hear her playing it on every song. She wasn't versatile, but she had this one beat, so we worked with that.

I didn't know what we were going to play. There was no vocal mic, so it wasn't like he was going to sing. We just jammed. He’d say something like, “Let's play a Memphis blues.” You would just watch his hands. Luckily, I also play guitar and could decode what he's playing. I'm a huge Al Kooper fan and there's this interview with him where he talked about the “Like a Rolling Stone” organ session and how he didn't know the song. Al would let the chord hit first so that he wouldn't make a mistake and then follow in on bar two. Now I’m playing organ in the same situation. It was really cool.

There was no studio audience. That show was [typically] shot in front of a live studio audience, so it was in that room with all these empty seats where they would usually shuffle in 200, 300 people to watch the actual show. This part was unattended. It was pretty fly-by-night.

There was no script. We would fall apart at the end of the song and Jenna would say something to Bob. That's all the stuff you hear. “We'll call you” or “we're looking for this” kind of stuff.

I actually think he was having a fun time. Jenna is super charming and funny and makes you feel relaxed. She's not some big superstar or something. Obviously, Bob's a superstar, but I don't think he looked at himself like that. At some point, there were red solo cups and drink. I remember having a vodka cranberry. I don't know why I remember that, but I do.

It took an hour or two and then they invited us to stay for the actual show taping, which goes down real quick because it's live. Evan Lowenstein from the band came with me and we stayed for a little bit of the show and then we left. That was it. Never saw Bob again

It aired a couple months later. I forgot all about it. All my friends back in Minneapolis were like, dude, what was that??

It was definitely one of the weirder pick-up gigs I've ever played. I still get residual checks for being an actor on a major syndicated sitcom, 20 years later. It's like four cents.

Thanks for sharing your story John! You can see more of John’s work with everyone from Selena Gomez to Andrew W.K. here. And if you do want to see the whole episode, the show’s on Hulu.

Find the index to all shows covered so far in this newsletter here.

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